J.J. Fetter – Getting the most out of High School sailing

Published on September 28th, 2010

jj(September 28, 2010) As a four-time U.S. Rolex Yachtswoman of the Year, Olympic silver and bronze medalist, three-time World Champion and double-figure National and European titlist, JJ Fetter Isler has had plenty of personal highlights. And for the 2009-2010 season, she added ‘High School Coach’ to her list of achievements. Despite her leadership role, she remains a student of the sport, and shares here the lessons that she learned:

Last year, I had a fun and challenging opportunity to coach the Francis Parker High School sailing team in San Diego. I was so impressed with high school sailing – what an amazing opportunity to get college-style short-course racing and 3-on-3 team racing experience while in high school. Here’s my advice for sailors who want to get the most out of their high school sailing:

1) Try to always be the first one on your team to: get to practice, change into your sailing clothes, rig and get on the water. Prepare for practice the way you prepare for a regatta so pack a spray top even on warm days and make sure you have a bailer and a sailing watch.

2) Never stand around while other sailors are rigging and de-rigging – help out your teammates to get everyone on and off the water faster.

3) Listen carefully when your coach explains the drills on land – and ask questions. It’s much easier for your coach to clarify her plans on land than to have to explain it again on the water.

4) Always sail your best from the minute you leave the dock. Use every moment on the water to improve your boat-handling – make every tack out to the race area your best roll tack. Trim your sails perfectly as you are reaching out to the race area – and look around (up in the lulls, down in the puffs). If the race area is upwind, anticipate the puffs and hike hard, always keeping your boat flat.

5) Keep an eye on the coach boat so you are close by when the coach signals that she is ready to start the first drill.

6) Practice as if it’s the last race of the Nationals. Let’s say you are doing rolling starts – still look up the course to see which side is favored, keep checking the line to see which end is favored, and try different approaches. If you are over early, clear yourself as soon as possible. If you foul someone or hit a mark, do a penalty turn.

7) If a boat capsizes or breaks down, the coach may have to leave the group to deal with the problem. Don’t just reach around goofing off while you wait for the coach to tell you what to do – organize the other sailors to do a rabbit start and race upwind or at least sail upwind yourself working on boat-handling.

8) If you have a question for the coach, sail up to the coach boat so you can discuss it without having to yell. If you are having a problem with something (for example, acceleration off the starting line), then ask the coach if she could watch your next start for that specific problem. Before a drill, sail near the coach boat to hear the plan and pass it along to other team members.

9) When your coach makes a suggestion to you – try it. And then try it again and again. If you feel you aren’t getting enough attention from your coach, you probably aren’t making an effort to sail close to the coach between drills to get advice or you probably aren’t doing anything with the advice you were given – so the coach goes off to work with some other team. If you don’t understand what the coach meant, then at the next opportunity, ask them (ie: when they said to flatten sooner out of the tack did they want you to hike harder or ease the mainsheet more or both?).

10) Even if you are assigned to sail with a novice crew, don’t complain. Look at it as an opportunity to improve the whole team and improve your teaching skills. And remember that one of the best ways to teach is by catching your crew doing something right and complimenting them.

11) NEVER yell at your crew. If your crew does makes a mistake, think about what you could do to keep the boat moving as fast as possible (maybe you need to pinch and hike extra hard while he leans in to fix the problem). Wait to discuss it until after the race. And think about what you could have done to prevent the problem (for example, if your crew had a bad tack around the leeward mark – could you have anticipated and communicated that you were probably going to need to tack right after rounding?)

12) If something broke on your boat during practice, make sure you either fix it when you come in or make sure it gets reported so it can be fixed before the next practice session.

13) Don’t skip practice for a big test. You should be able to balance homework and being on a sports team. So if you know you have a big test coming on the day after practice – start studying for that test a few days beforehand.

14) Be a team player. If you are the alternate at a regatta, be supportive of the team that’s on the water. Keep watching the racing so if you get rotated in, you have a firm grasp on what side of the course is paying, how long the starting line is, etc. Help with the rotation by grabbing the next boat – check it for water, check the rig tension and look at common problems such as hiking strap lines that are frayed and check the tiller extension universal for wear. As your teammates are heading out, make sure they have a bailer, lifejackets, etc.

15) If you have a specific issue about something with the team, first give it some time to see if it’s still a problem, and then ask the coach if you could find a time to discuss it privately – away from practice.

16) Most high school teams in Southern California only practice two days per week. Find time on the other days to improve your fitness and your sailing knowledge. Read Dave Perry’s book on Understanding the Racing Rules. If you are team racing, then get Steve Hunt’s DVD on Team racing and read the Umpire Call Book.

17) And finally, appreciate that you get to go out on the water for a few hours after a long day of sitting in classrooms. So have fun!

Note: JJ was inducted into the San Diego Hall of Champions during the Hall’s annual ceremony in 2010. Here is a video of her speech.


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